NASA explores the science of making money disappear

The nation’s space program is less a science effort than a jobs program.

The Washington Post reinforces that today with an expose of NASA, a favorite line-item of politicians when it comes to divvying up the cash.

In June, NASA finished a $349 million tower to test a new rocket engine. There was just one problem: The rocket engine project was canceled in 2010, but it kept building the tower nonetheless, the Post reports. Now, it will spend $700,000 a year to mothball the building.

In the summer of 2010, Congress saved the tower in Mississippi for good.

It happened without anybody mentioning the project’s name aloud.

“This is a big day for America,” said then-Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), as it was about to happen. Hutchison was speaking in July 2010 at a meeting of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“We’re doing the right thing for America. For our economy. For our creativity,” she said. “For our science. And for our security.”

Hutchison was announcing a new compromise with the White House, which would finally settle the fight over Constellation. Constellation was dead. Instead, the senators were telling NASA to build something that they had just made up: a “Space Launch System” (jokers at NASA call it the “Senate Launch System”).

The new plan for NASA was, as usual, long on “how” and short on “why.”

The senators were clear about what they wanted NASA to do: keep some Constellation-era projects going, with all their salaries and spending, and try to integrate them into a new system.

Everybody knew the project was pointless, the Post suggests. But it passed the House, it passed the Senate and the bill with the cash was signed into law by the president and nobody appears to have said a discouraging word.